General Writing Thoughts: Darkhorse Characters

Darkhorse characters. You invite ‘em in for one scene, and they hang around the whole book. I love them. Let me explain:

I’m sure every novel-writer has their own method for planning and writing books. Stephen King famously just starts writing and wings it, eschewing outlines. Of course, saying that King is “winging it” when he writes a novel is like saying that Kobe Bryant is “winging it” when he plays basketball. But in any event, I’m sure that every novelist plans their books in their own way.

I submit, however, that most novelists probably have a general idea of their cast list before they begin a project. I know I do. I usually go into a novel with a good idea of who my main characters are and what they’re going to experience over the course of the story. There’s always room for improvisation with any of my characters, but I try to plan out their character arc before I begin writing in earnest.

But then there are the darkhorse characters – the ones I didn’t plan for.

In every novel, novella and screenplay I’ve written, I’ve always had one (sometimes two) darkhorse characters. Some of them have been unnamed characters who I brought onstage as extras for one scene, only to watch them take on their own life and hang around for the rest of the book, while others have been characters I planned to bring on in minor roles who would wind up becoming lead characters.

The most dramatic example of a darkhorse character came in my first novel, Devil’s Jukebox, which follows a hulking redneck man-child and a time-traveling mad scientist as they travel across the country, both of them on a collision-course with each other at a mysterious demolition derby in the California desert. These two characters first meet during a brawl in a strip club, and it was during this scene that I introduced a minor character, Skel. I planned to whack Skel during this scene; he was essentially cannon-fodder for my hero, the hulking man-child. But Skel survived the brawl and went on to become one of the story’s central villains.

This had repercussions not only for the overall narrative – I had to deal with another villain on my imaginary landscape – but I also had to spend time with this loathsome figure so I could determine the source of his motives. I wound up giving Skel an entire backstory and subplot in Devil’s Jukebox, all while taking time to weave him into the theme I was trying to explore, family. I’ll leave it for future readers to judge how well I accomplished those tasks, but let me say this: I loved writing about him. I loved how the emergence of a darkhorse character challenged me to spend so much time on pure, by-the-seat-of-my-pants invention. Other darkhorse characters of mine include Officer Johnny Major (The Island Circus), Pell Yannick (The Odds) and to a great extent, Kieron (The Remnants).

Don’t get me wrong. I spend plenty of time inventing with all of my main characters. There’s actually a larger conversation to be had here about how much an author plans out their characters. I’ll talk about it more in an entry on outlining, but for now I’ll simply say that even though I map out the plots of my novels in detail, I try to leave myself a lot of room for play and improvisation.

Darkhorse characters provide a unique challenge in that I hadn’t planned for them at all, and through the exigencies of storytelling – and, I like to think, the pure magic of it – I’m forced to incorporate a fully formed character into my narrative on the fly. I love it. It’s one of my favorite parts of novel-writing.

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